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The theater where I’ll be performing We Outran the Sun is the Shubert at NYU Grad Acting, on the 5th floor of 721 Broadway in New York.  I met Damon there last week to look at the space and talk about the projection surface: a canvas collaged with pages taken from the yellow legal pads I use to write lists and lyrics, as well as notes and letters from the people in the portraits.  As I sat in that theater, I thought of the history it holds for me.  I spent my entire second year of grad school performing different plays in that space: Angels in America, Moonchild, and A Month in the Country.  I worked in that theater with actors and designers who are now a part of the song cycle:  Stacey, Ciera, Gretchen and Freddy.

(L: As Prior Walter in Angels in America, R: putting on makeup for Moonchild)

Schubert with a “c” was an Austrian composer who wrote a number of song cycles. Shubert without the “c” refers to three brothers (Sam, Lee, and Jacob) who were theatrical producers.  The Shubert brothers formed a company in the late 19th century which now owns seventeen of the Broadway houses in New York.  By 1929 they owned, operated, and booked over a thousand different theaters across the country, many of which shared a name: The Shubert.  The corporation continues to produce theater, and I’m sure that an endowment from this company led NYU to name the small theater at Grad Acting after them as well.  For some reason, I always thought they spelled their name like the Austrian composer; Shane-Ann Younts (who taught me voice at NYU and has been following the blog) recently pointed out my mistake.  I’ll be performing at the Shubert (hold the c).

(R: the composer Franz Schubert, L: the producer Lee Shubert)

My roommate Chris Grant (“You Only Live Twice”) recently helped pack up his childhood home in Texas.  His mother had remarried and was moving to Wisconsin. He went home to collect the things he had in that house (as well as help her prepare for the move) and ended up being the person who did the final sweep of the floors and locked the doors.  When he came back to New York we talked about the power that physical space has on memory, how it evokes certain people and moments in your life.  I can’t imagine my parents moving, though I’m sure it’s a possibility as they get older.  Standing in the middle of the lawn or on the steps to our basement, I see or feel the past I have there.  The Shubert is much same.

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When I was little, I had mittens with string.  For those of you who grew up in a warmer climate than say, Michigan, children are often given mittens connected by a long strand of yarn.  The only thing more annoying than losing your gloves or mittens in the cold of winter is losing one of them, and children aren’t always so attentive.  Another perk is that you can take them off and they’ll dangle from the cuffs of your winter coat.  They’re together, even when apart.  They’re connected.

(With my sisters in front of a giant snowbank wearing mittens with string, 1985)

Gretchen Hall and Freddy Arsenault were classmates of mine in graduate school at NYU.  The portrait I’ve written of them (“Gretchen and Freddy Get Married Today”) was their wedding gift.  Though I consider them good friends, I can’t say I’ve seen very much of them since school.  It’s not that they live far from me.  Aside from my roommate Chris Grant (“You Only Live Twice”) they are theoretically the closest to me (geographically) of the people in the portraits.  Gretchen and Freddy have a beautiful apartment in Washington Heights, maybe twenty blocks from where I live.  The problem is that we’re rarely in the city at the same time.

I’ve written a little about wearing a pair of vagabond shoes, and to a certain extent you expect that as an actor.  What you don’t think about though, initially at least, is how your nomadic life will affect your patterns of relationships and friendships. Working out of town, your cast becomes your family, as you usually don’t know anyone else in the city you’re in.  You work together, play together, dine together, and drink together.  That intense bond somewhat dissipates after a show closes, by necessity; you don’t abandon these friendships, but they change.  Returning to New York you reconnect with the people you left behind, but often those same people are also actors and artists who crisscross the country for their work.  After their wedding Gretchen and Freddy soon left to do plays separately in Baltimore, MD and Norfolk, VA.  I’m happy to say they recently got to work together (and therefore be in the same city), collaborating on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Pericles with Jim Calder, who taught all of us at NYU.  I’m happier thouigh, to say they stayed an additional week in Italy for their much delayed honeymoon.

Gretchen and Freddy are mittens with string / Together when they are apart

Because of this itinerant lifestyle, it’s completely possible for me not to see a good friend of mine (who technically lives in the same city) for six months or more.  In a strange way, it makes you experience the present moment with a greater sense of ease and gratefulness.  As I wrote about Shawn Kemp (“We Outran the Sun”), it’s possible to walk back into a friendship after seven years as if nothing has changed. Stressed out and behind schedule with a book I was recording last November, feeling adrift and a little directionless, Gretchen had me over for tea and made the world spin a little less quickly.  Freddy and I talk about starting a rock band every oh, six months or so.  I wrote a role for him in the last play I finished.

What I admire about Gretchen and Freddy is how they’ve found a way to navigate the distance not only in their friendships, but also their relationship.  If distance is difficult in friendships, it is exponentially moreso with someone you love.   But Gretchen and Freddy are mittens with string, together even when they are apart. Click the link below to hear a simple demo recording of their portrait.

Gretchen and Freddy Get Married Today (mp3) by Matthew Carlson


John Whitlock and I played soccer together in high school.  I still vividly remember the first day of tryouts freshman year; the varsity coach told us we were going to run all day, and that is exactly what we did.  He followed us in his car, and we ran the entire allotted time: ten miles through the dusty back roads of St. Johns.  The next day we began drill, and you could see clearly who was sore and who was in shape.  I was an average soccer player (if I am to be honest with myself) but pursued it with the ferocity that I bring to most of what I do.  Sophomore year I got cut from team, and was devastated.  If that hadn’t happened, though, I probably wouldn’t be an actor.  After not making the team, I auditioned for my first play that fall.  John kept playing soccer, eventually making his way to varsity.

(Left: St. Augustine of Hippo, Right: my friend from high school, John Whitlock)

John Whitlock is now in preparation to be a Roman Catholic priest.  When I knew him he wasn’t even Catholic, so this came as a bit of a surprise.  The last time I saw John was probably New Year’s Eve 1999, a night that provided the basis for the song “Right Foot to Red Circle.”  John sent me his interview recently from Michigan, and in it he mentions a question we were all asked for the high school yearbook: “Write something that surprised you from your time in school.”  He answered saying that he was surprised by how nothing turns out the way you expect.  John got an undergraduate degree in business and a master’s degree in accounting.  Yet after a few years of working as a CPA, he decided that he was meant to do something else.  He wanted to help people, to tangibly make a difference in the lives of others.  I have to say, I certainly understand the surprise at seeing how your life unfolds.  When John and I played soccer together, I thought I would be an engineer.  Years after being cut from the soccer team and doing a high school play, I find myself writing, producing, and performing a song cycle.

Watching John’s interview, I realized how much subtle religious imagery is in the songs.  Dave and I are “corn fields, Jesus Christ and apple pie,” Stacey is “like St. Augustine / her heart feels too much,” and “John Whitlock, he became a priest.”

(John and I after helping decorate the gym for the homecoming dance, circa 1997)

Augustine of Hippo was a philosopher and theologian who lived in the northern African provinces of the Roman Empire from 354-430 A.D.  He is considered the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, and sore eyes (I think that goes to show that it is certainly possible to be both an intellectual and enjoy a pint of ale).  As a young man Augustine followed the Manichaean religion, and also developed a relationship with a young woman from Carthage.  They lived together for eleven years and she bore him a son, yet because she was so far below him in social class, they never married.  Eventually persuaded by his mother to accept a society marriage, he abandoned the women he called “The One.”  He wrote much of his despair over the decision, saying the experience caused in him a decreased sensitivity to any other pain.  Before long he broke off the engagement with his eleven year old fiance, converted to Christianity and became a priest.

As I continue to write about my friends I find that I’m drawn to people who are open, whose hearts perhaps feel too much.  John and Stacey, as different as they are, share a desire to be present, to affect the people in their lives.

I’d do well to follow their example.

I met Dave Beck making mashed potatoes.

We both worked at a resort in northern Michigan called Camp Arcadia for three summers while in college.  That first summer we worked together in the kitchen.  I had just finished high school, arriving part way through the summer to replace a staff member who had to leave early.  Now I should explain that working on the kitchen staff at Arcadia is not like your average summer camp (no frozen pizzas or fried food).  Kurt Harvey is a chef, and while there I helped prepare pork loin with a mango chutney glaze, mushroom vegetarian lasagna with a white sauce, and a delicate chocolate mousse.  And I made mashed potatoes that first week with Dave Beck, in a giant mixer the size of a Lazy Boy recliner.

We grew up together, on the shores of Michigan (beach carnival/boat regatta)

Camp Arcadia is a camp, but also sort of a resort.  You don’t stay in cabins, but rather a rustic inn.  Its not a place where kids come for the entire summer, but mostly a place where families come for a one week vacation.  In his interview, Dave describes it as “Dirty Dancing meets Christian slash On the Lake, Happy Fun Time,” perhaps one of the more accurate descriptions I’ve heard.  It is also among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  Camp Arcadia is literally on the northern shores of Lake Michigan; the building are only a few yards from the water.  I grew up going to the week for high school students at the beginning of the summer, while Dave had gone to the family weeks.  Even before working there, Arcadia held a lot of history for both of us.  We knew this place, inside and out.

The second and third summers, Dave and I worked on program staff together and became close friends.  The program staff runs all of the events, which meant that we led softball and soccer games, ran beach carnivals and patio carnivals, served as lifeguards at the beach and on canoe trips, and yes, even called the square dance.  We alternated as DJ for the radio program which played each morning from 8:00-8:30.  Dave ran the boat regatta as his pirate alter ego Captain Salty, and I played taps each night as the flag was lowered and the sun set into Lake Michigan.  I can honestly say that some of my most profoundly happy memories are at Camp Arcadia, a place I have difficulty explaining to people who have never been.

I’m on a postcard, Dave he drew a coloring book (playing taps circa 2000)

Dave still returns to Arcadia each summer as an adult counselor for the high school week I used to attend.  And my family has started to go to a family week each year at the end of July.  In fact I’ll be there soon after performing the song cycle in New York, and look forward to taking Eva and Leo (“Ten Times Round the House”) to the beach.  The imagery in the portrait of Dave (“I Can Breathe Underwater”) comes mostly from our time spent at Arcadia.  Dave is an artist, and did in fact design a coloring book that I think is still sold in the gift shop.  I am likewise still on a postcard you can buy at the Trading Post, an image of this younger version of myself playing taps at sunset in front of the Wigwam.

The chorus is meant to evoke the sound of the water that I heard every night while falling asleep, Lake Michigan only a few feet from where I slept.  It is probably the only moment to reference the work of Philip Glass, whose friendship with Chuck Close inspired this project, and whose writing is much, much different than my own.  He builds simple, repetitive musical structures in his music that ebb and flow, and for the choruses of Dave’s portrait I tried to do the same.

Water carry me back home / I can breathe underwater

Well, everything is starting to become real.

What began as a handful of tunes written about the people in my life has now evolved into a song cycle/multimedia piece for the theatre.  I looked up from my work today and realized that I’ll be performing this project for an audience in the Shubert Theater in a little less than three weeks.  I edited the interview of Chris Grant (“You Only Live Twice”) last night, my first attempt at narrative editing.  The projections I’d been working on – though involved – are somewhat simpler and more image based.  Mike and I filmed Ciera (“Keys That Don’t Open Locks”) yesterday, and I received DVDs in the mail from John Whitlock (“Right Foot to Red Circle”) and Christine Mild (“After Apple Picking”).  Of the ten interviews, we have nine of them filmed and six of them edited.  Soon we’ll move our attention more fully to the projections that will play during the songs themselves.

I created a public Facebook event today so if you’re reading feel free to invite friends, neighbors, and co-workers.  I also set up an email address to take reservations: weoutranthesun@gmail.com.  Performances are July 15-18, each night at 8:00.  If you plan on coming, making a reservation will help me plan a bit (and guarantee you a seat).  Admission is simply a suggested donation at the door.

(L: the piano where I write, R: my friend Shawn Kemp of “We Outran the Sun”)

As we come to the close of the week I think I should release another mp3 as well. The following song is the portrait of Shawn Kemp, which shares its name with the project, “We Outran the Sun.”  The post on Wednesday included her edited interview, which is the companion visual portrait to her song and will precede it in performance.  So for the first time you can see dual nature of the portraits, both visual and musical.  The link below is a demo mp3 of me at the piano.

We Outran the Sun by Matthew Carlson

I’d never much admired the artwork of Andy Warhol.  A certain self satisfaction radiates from his paintings, a smugness and narcissism that seems to say “I’m smarter and hipper than you, and I’m not even trying.”  I understood his impact on art, how he embraced a commingling of the low brow and high brow, how he incorporated advertising and celebrity into the “pop art” he created.  But I always felt that the cold and aloof style of his images never let anyone in.  His portraits, especially his self-portraits, create distance between you and the subject.

“Self-Portrait (Strangulation)” by Andy Warhol, 1978.

While writing this song cycle I considered writing a self-portrait.  Andy Warhol certainly created prolific images of himself, as did many artists that I admire. Chuck Close, whose friendship with Philip Glass inspired this project, returns time and again to self-portraits.  I wasn’t really sure how to start though, and writing a song about yourself seemed kind of, well, narcissistic.  But when I met with Kate Ashton, the lighting designer for this project, the first thing she said was how she felt she knew me better after listening to the songs.  I began to realize that in creating portraits of my friendships I had inadvertently drawn portraits of myself as well.

I went to the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum yesterday with my uncle.  The exhibit looks specifically at the last decade of his life, when he returned to painting with brushes after years of silk screening, after the art world had somewhat lost interest in his work, and perhaps more importantly as he contemplated his legacy and death.  The work is still clever and brash, but feels more personal.  The self-portraits (like the one above) even hint at vulnerability.

“In the Garden,” a favorite painting of mine by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1883.

The Brooklyn Museum also has paintings by a few of my favorite 19th century American artists: portraits by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Henderson Thayer, and William Merritt Chase.  Having worked now on portraits myself (albeit in much different medium) I see now why I’m drawn to them.  The portraits that move me are complex, full of contradictions, like the people themselves.  When editing the interviews Mike and I talk about finding the right balance of a person’s characteristics, and with the songs it was much the same.  I think that in revealing the contradictions in someone you reveal the truth about them. Apparently, like Warhol, you also finally begin to reveal yourself.

We lived in New York City / We had agreed to follow different stars

I’ve written a fair amount recently about my All-American tendencies (apple picking and Robert Frost, as well as Jesus, pie, and JFK, to name a few).  If I need to display any more evidence, I can tell you that yesterday I not only went to the Statue of Liberty, but also a baseball game.  My uncle Dennis is in town this week for a visit, and last night we took the 7 train out to Citi Field to watch his beloved Detroit Tigers take on the Mets.  About as American a day as I can imagine, unless I were to also recite the Gettysburg address while eating a cheeseburger.

Which is why it seems all the more appropriate to switch gears and share with you the edited interview of my friend Shawn Kemp.  Shawn and I met at the age of 16 at Eastern Michigan University, as part of what we now affectionately refer to as smart kids camp.  No matter how All-American I may be, I do seem to wear a pair of vagabond shoes.  Shawn is much the same.  She grew up in Michigan but now lives in Germany, where she teaches on the faculty of Tuebingen University. When I had dinner with her last December in New York, Air France had lost her luggage amidst an epic snowstorm.  The edited interview below is the visual companion to her song. Her portrait (“We Outran the Sun”) will open the show.

(Film © 2010 Matthew Carlson and Michael Heck)

Robert Frost never finished college.  He attended both Dartmouth and Harvard but never graduated, instead settling down on a farm in New Hampshire with his young family.  He set aside time to write early in the mornings and at that farm completed many of the works that would later make him famous.  Yet the man who wrote perhaps the most distinctively American poems of the 20th century, including those roads that diverged in a yellow wood, couldn’t get published.  He would eventually go on to receive four Pulitzer prizes and over 40 honorary degrees, but the only poet most Americans can quote by heart didn’t get a book of his poetry published until the age of 38, and then only in England.

Oh we read a poem by Robert Frost / after apple picking / after apple picking

As I was about to leave for Long Island last fall to pick apples with Christine Mild, another friend of mine asked me if I had read the poem by Robert Frost on that very subject.  I had not.  I quickly found it online, printed it, and put it in my pocket.  I thought it might be fun to read after we had, in fact, gone apple picking.  The poem begins with a simple pastoral description of harvesting fruit, but quickly evolves into a rueful mediation about choices we make in life.  If you’ve read my earlier post about the day Christine and I shared at the orchard in Long Island, you’ll realize this was appropriate.  “After Apple Picking,” the portrait I’ve written of Christine, shares both its title and theme with the Frost poem we read that afternoon as we returned empty handed from the orchard.  Somehow it comforts me to know that a man who changed the course of American poetry struggled just the same as I sometimes do.  Below is the text of his original poem.

(Left: James Chapin portrait of a young Robert Frost, Right: his 1974 USPS stamp)

“After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well

Upon my way to sleep before it fell,

And I could tell

What form my dreaming was about to take.

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.

For I have had too much

Of apple-picking: I am overtired

Of the great harvest I myself desired.

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all

That struck the earth,

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,

Went surely to the cider-apple heap

As of no worth.

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Were he not gone,

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.

I read a book today your name was in the front

I thought you might fall out as I turned the page

I record audiobooks of college textbooks.  The work is flexible and I’m able to set my own schedule, which is great for an actor.  My morning routine usually includes a French press of coffee and the New York Times online, though for now the newspaper has been mostly replaced with the preparation of the day’s blog post and returning email.  By late morning I return to my desk with the remains of my coffee, attach the microphone and mixer to my laptop and place the music stand with textbook at a comfortable distance.  I warm up my voice a bit, and then sit down with my advanced copy of the text and highlighter, and get to work.

When I got back to New York from performing Picnic at Triad Stage last fall, I had a number of requested books awaiting me at the library.  Among them was Old Wicked Songs by Jon Marans.  As I turned the pages I looked down and there was the name Michael Stuhlbarg.  He had originated the character of Stephen Hoffman, a young pianist who through the course of the play must learn the Schumann song cycle Dichterliebe.  A piano prodigy who has flamed out, Hoffman has come to study accompaniment with the Viennese professor Josef Mashkan.  However, Mashkan tells him he must first learn to sing, and what he will sing is the Dichterliebe.  The play returns often to the motif of the joy and sadness inherent and coexistent in music, to the idea that we use our own lives to create our art.

(Left: Anni and I “reading” a book, Right: the title page of my play home, sweet)

Books have been an integral part of my life since even before I could read.  My sister Anni used to pretend to read to me when we were kids, before either of us knew how.  I read voraciously growing up; it seemed we were always at the library.  Eventually plays eclipsed prose, and I lost myself in a sea of writers: Shakespeare and Chekhov, August Wilson and Adam Rapp, Sara Ruhl and Chuck Mee.  As a theater actor your work is extremely ephemeral, and that impermanence can be both exhilarating and disconcerting.  Working on a world premiere however, includes a small possibility of permanence: finding your name in the front of the printed version of the play. Leafing through the early pages of Old Wicked Songs, I had suddenly found Michael in the front of the book.

The flexibility of recording textbooks allows me an ease with scheduling auditions, and when I get a theater job I simply finish the book I’m working on and leave that world behind for a while.  In that sense, its perfect.  Yet working from home, though incredibly convenient, can also be a little isolating.  All of these things found their way into the portrait I’ve written of Michael (“A Soft Spoken Serious Man”): the isolation, the books, the possibility of permanence.  I finally finished the textbook I’ve been working on this afternoon, just before my uncle arrived in New York for a few days visit.  The textbook will undoubtedly find its way onto the iPods of college students, but for me its over.  As a writer though, I’ve come to find satisfaction in the permanence of having your name printed on the front.

I read a book today my name was in the front

I finally found myself, in between the lines

Henry Morrison Flagler built a railroad into the ocean.

In 1905 when the United States announced the construction of the Panama Canal, Key West was the third most populous city in the state of Florida.  Yet the islands of the Florida Keys could only be reached from the mainland by boat.  Henry Flagler had been the partner of John D. Rockefeller at Standard Oil, but upon retiring he moved to Florida and became something of a railroad tycoon.  His Florida East Coast Railway closely followed the Atlantic coastline, and by 1904 had reached Miami.  Realizing that the Panama Canal would raise the profile and importance of Key West even further, Flagler decided to connect the port to the mainland.

And so like Flagler’s foolish railroad our love was swept into the sea

Initially called Flagler’s Folly, the Overseas Railroad came to be known as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The project cost more than $50 million, requiring incredible innovations in engineering and employing four thousand people over the course of seven years.  In 1912 Flagler took the first train over the 127 miles of rail that connected the islands through a series of extraordinary bridges.  Key West exploded with life.  Yet in 1935, little more than twenty years later, the Keys were hit by a devastating hurricane.  Hundreds of people died, sections of the railroad were destroyed, and a train was blown into the sea.  The Florida East Railroad Company, already bankrupt from the Depression, couldn’t afford to rebuild.  The roadbed and remaining bridges were sold to the State of Florida for a mere $640,000.

(Ciera with the nearly tame, miniature deer that roam Big Pine Key)

Ciera Wells (“Keys That Don’t Open Locks”) and I took a trip together to the Florida Keys.  We flew into Palm Beach and then rented a car and drove down Highway 1.  The Overseas Highway still invokes an awe similar to the initial accounts of Flagler’s railroad.  At times it seems as if you are driving through the sky, in the middle of the ocean.  The water is an exquisite turquoise, a color so vivid it seems unreal. The Keys are almost unspeakably beautiful.  Ciera and I, however, broke up not long after that trip.  We had helped each other through difficult times in our lives (for both of us really) but timing, as they say, is everything. Yet just as the Overseas Highway was built from the wreckage of Flagler’s railroad, so too Ciera and I now find ourselves in a friendship that began as something else.

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